A Tribute to The Formalist
(First presented at the Form and Narrative Poetry Conference, West Chester University, West Chester, Pennsylvania, June 8, 2000.)
William Baer's editorial notes in Issue #1 of The Formalist do not constitute the firebreathing manifesto a reader might expect, given the publication's strong and coherent sense of mission, and given the literary climate into which The Formalist was launched. Mr. Baer simply welcomed his readers, and offered the following statement of purpose: "The Formalist is dedicated to metrical poetry, which the editors feel is the mainstream of English-language verse. We hope to create a forum for formal poetry and to encourage a renewal of interest in traditional poetic craftsmanship."
That's it for editorial rhetoric. Instead, Mr. Baer let Issue #1 make its own case for the power of traditional forms, which it did, through the strength of its criticism and poetry.
As The Formalist has remained a remarkably consistent product over its decade-long lifespan, a quick survey of Issue #1 gives us a sense of the publication's distinctive formula. First of all, there's always a mix of poetry by the academic and the new formalists, featuring some of the most stellar figures in both camps. In volume one, we get poems by Howard Nemerov, Donald Justice, and Richard Wilbur, side by side with R. S. Gwynn, Dana Gioia, and Andrew Hudgins, for example. The Formalist also welcomes relative newcomers. In fact, Issue #1 even features a meditation on Socrates in ballad metre by Mary B. Susanka, a seventh-grader from Oak View, California. Lyric, narrative and satire are carefully balanced, and for good measure Mr. Baer also tosses in some translations (in Issue #1 we get Cattullus and Horace translated by Joseph Salemi and Goethe translated by Henry W. Russell.)
Of course The Formalist's real business is keeping tradition alive. To underscore this point, each issue includes a selection entitled "From the Tradition" which draws liberally from the history of English verse. (Issue #1 gives us Oliver Goldsmith, M.G. (Monk) Lewis, Yeats, and the ballad Sir Patrick Spens.) In this way, The Formalist stresses the continuity that ties the newest generation of formalist poets to their spiritual forbears through the ages.
Each issue of The Formalist offers intelligent criticism by both the living and the dead, some of it new, much of it reprinted, most of it dealing with matters of meter and form. In Issue #1 we find Philip Larkin's "The Pleasure Principle," the Australian poet A.D. Hope's "Free-Verse: A Post-Mortem," and Samuel Maio's "The Enduring Robert Frost." While Issue #1 contains no interviews, they have become one of the publication's most important offerings, with subjects including John Frederick Nims, John Hollander, Anthony Hecht, Donald Justice -- a dream team of formalist poets. Though much of the criticism featured over the years in The Formalist unequivocally asserts the timelessness of regular traditional forms, the publication has nonetheless managed to consistently rise above the poetry wars. A reader finds no polemics in The Formalist, and, for that matter, no reviews. Moreover, in every editorial since his first, Mr. Baer has remained softspoken and circumspect, choosing to let others do the talking. And they do.
For instance, Richard Wilbur has written of The Formalist: "My dictionary is very negative about the word formalist, calling it rigourous or excessive adherence to recognized forms, but you have proven for a decade that it can be the dance of substance."
And, in the words of Donald Justice:
I count on The Formalist to keep, unabashedly, the sometimes flickering flame of the great tradition alive and glowing. Its mingling of the old and the new is salutary and illuminating.
And X. J. Kennedy has written:
The Formalist has become one of the essential little magazines, a shining refuge for poets who play the Grand Old Game of rhyme and meter.
To those tributes, I would like to add that everything about The Formalist---its consistency, its understated tone, even it's simple, elegant, unchanging design--- everything bespeaks serene confidence in its own rightness of both mission and of execution.
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